Break time

No recess is the norm for 6,000 Detroit students.  Here’s how that could change.

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote
Students at Detroit's Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy line up to go to recess. Recess isn't guaranteed to students are more than a dozen other district elementary schools.

Add recess to the list of basics that students have done without in Detroit.

A generation of Detroit children raised in a state-run school district has missed out on classes in art, gym, and music. They attended classrooms without certified teachers inside un-airconditioned, crumbling school buildings as emergency managers looked for cost savings.

More than 6,000 children were even denied something as essential as daily recess, according to records obtained by Chalkbeat.

Recess did not appear at all on the master schedules of nine elementary schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District last year. Another eight district schools set aside recess time for students in only a few grades.

Even in schools with no scheduled recess, some students are allowed to go outside for some of their half-hour lunch period. Other schools send students outside three days a week, students and parents told Chalkbeat. And when recess isn’t on the schedule, teachers are empowered to cancel free time if students misbehave.

None of these schools provide what researchers and parents insist is an indispensable part of the school day: a daily chance for a student to use her outside voice while exploring the physical world with her peers.

Recess “is not really a privilege, it’s a necessity,” said Marlisia Crawford, mother of two students at Nolan elementary, which has no regularly scheduled recess. (See the full list below.)

She is backed up by researchers who insist that recess is an indispensable part of the school day.  Repeated studies have found that students who have unstructured play time not only pay more attention in class, but also are less likely to suffer from health problems like myopia and obesity.

The American Academy of Pediatrics calls recess a “crucial and necessary component of a child’s development,” citing the “cognitive, social, emotional and physical benefits” of unstructured play.

Kathleen Burris, an expert on play at Middle Tennessee State University, told Chalkbeat that recess helps students learn in ways that are not possible in a structured classroom setting.

“Administrators who diminish recess to provide for more instructional time miss a significant learning opportunity,” she said.

As parents sound the alarm about recess in Detroit, their concerns are not falling on deaf ears.

A new crop of district leaders say the district has already taken steps to ensure that every school has recess next year.

“It should not even be up for discussion,” said Angelique Peterson-Mayberry, vice-president of the school board. Recess “should just be the norm in our district.”

She believes that the school board inherited the problem when it regained control from the state-appointed emergency managers who ran the district for much of the past two decades. “Budget cuts,” she said, simply.

Reinstating recess will be among the challenges faced by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti as he enters his second year on the job. Earlier this year, the school board created a policy requiring schools to provide recess and gym class.

“We believe recess and unstructured play improves overall behavior, focus, health and student achievement,” Vitti said in a prepared statement, adding: “starting this year, we allot 50 minutes for lunch and recess in grades K-8. Next year, schools cannot withhold students from physical activity for academic or disciplinary reasons.”

Finding staff to supervise students at outdoor recess could be a challenge, especially for a district already rushing to fill more than 200 vacancies inside the classroom this summer.

When Peterson-Mayberry’s children were in elementary school, she says she volunteered to supervise a recess hour. Without the extra help, teachers at the school wouldn’t have been able to let the students go outside.

The district held its first job fair of the summer, but it remains to be seen whether that will be enough to fill roughly 200 teaching vacancies — a number that could grow over the summer as teachers in the district’s aging workforce decide to retire.

Students at Brewer Academy, a K-8 school on the city’s far east side, haven’t had classes in art, music, or gym in recent years. They also haven’t had a regularly scheduled recess.

It’s tough on younger kids especially, said Ansariah Musafir, who works as an aide at Brewer, where her daughter is also enrolled. “They have a lot of energy, and they have to channel it,” she said.

When recess isn’t built into the day, playtime is either reduced or left up to the whims of individual staff members, Musafir said.

“The kids would go out more” if recess were regularly scheduled, she said of the situation at Brewer.

Recess is not Detroit’s problem alone, said Angela Rogensues, executive director of Playworks Michigan, a non-profit that works to give students more access to playtime. She told Chalkbeat that schools without recess are not uncommon across Michigan.

Only a handful of states require schools to offer recess, and Michigan is not among them. So in the early 2000s, when the federal government began pushing schools to improve their scores on high-stakes tests, she said, recess was an easy target.

“A lot of it comes from an intense scrutiny around academics, and less of a focus on the social-emotional learning that kids garner through play,” she said.

That approach makes sense to parents who feel that the district’s rock bottom test scores demand extraordinary measures.

“I don’t feel like school is for recess,” said De Brown, father of a second- and fifth-grader at Brewer. “School is for studying.”

A blue sky greeted students at Nolan Elementary School on the last day of classes. It was field day — a day of outdoor games and sports — and district officials were using the occasion to unveil a summer advertising campaign designed to boost enrollment.

When the press conference was over, students streamed out of the school wearing tee shirts emblazoned with the district’s newly revealed logo, ready for a day of outdoor play.

Nolan’s daily schedule, however, tells a different story. It allots zero minutes to recess for students in grades K-5. Nolan also lacks a gym teacher.

As he waited for the festivities to begin, Rickey Harris, father of a first-grader at Nolan, said playtime shouldn’t be a special occasion.

Recess “should be a set aside time, it shouldn’t be spontaneous,” he said.

Scroll to see whether recess is scheduled at your elementary school.

New Arrivals

In a letter to Betsy Devos, Michigan officials highlight the plight of refugee students — and ask for testing waiver.

PHOTO: Warren Consolidated Schools
Students at Warren-Mott High School in the Detroit suburbs. Officials there say that many students are arriving at the school from refugee camps, including 11th graders who had no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Such students would currently be required to take a state English test during their first year in school.

To teachers who work with recently arrived refugee students, the problem is clear: Although their students will eventually learn English, their language skills at first aren’t comparable to those of native speakers.

They’re hoping federal education officials will come to the same conclusion after reading the state’s detail-rich request to delay testing new immigrant children in English.

That request will make Michigan the second state to ask for a waiver from a federal law that requires children who arrived in the U.S. this year to take standardized English tests within a year of arriving — even if they’re just being introduced to the language. The law also requires states to count such students’ scores in decisions about whether to close low-performing schools.

“We wanted to balance between presenting hard data and some anecdotes,” said Chris Janzer, assistant director of accountability at the Michigan Department of Education. “We’re hoping that the case we present, with some of the stories, will win us approval.”

The stories hone in on the Detroit area, home to the nation’s largest concentration of Arabic speakers, including many newly arrived refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East. This population is unique in more ways than one: It includes more than 30,000 Chaldean Christians who arrived after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — the largest such population in the world outside Iraq. And many of its children must deal with the aftereffects of violent displacement even as they attempt to attend school in what is in many cases an entirely new language.

The state’s waiver request offers Hamtramck, a hyper-diverse city enclave in Detroit, as an example:

Hamtramck has many recent arrivals from war-torn regions in Yemen and Syria and has students from remote villages with no formal education background, as well as many others with interrupted learning. New students can have toxic stress and can even be suicidal, and often require wraparound services. Older students are also often burdened with the responsibility of helping their families financially, emotionally, and with childrearing.

Even the luckiest new arrivals would benefit if Michigan receives a waiver from parts of the federal Every Students Succeed Act, says Suzanne Toohey, president of Michigan Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

“The intent of the waiver is for the most needy students, but it will help all students,” she said, adding that it typically takes 5-7 years for an English learner to catch up to her native-speaking peers.

With that in mind, Toohey says current federal requirements don’t make sense.

“It would be like an adult who is many years out of school, and who took French for two years of high school, going to France and trying to take a college course,” she said. “It’s just not going to happen.”

Following the same logic, Michigan officials are asking U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to put the brakes on federal requirements for testing recently arrived English learners. If the waiver request is approved:

  • In their first year in Michigan schools, those students wouldn’t be required to take the state English language arts exam.
  • In their second, they would take the test, but schools wouldn’t be held accountable for their scores.
  • In year three, the growth in their scores on the English exam would be factored into school ratings.
  • And in year four their overall score — known as proficiency — would be counted as well as their growth.

That’s still too soon to begin testing English learners, Toohey said, noting “the waiver is a start, but we haven’t gotten all the way there.”

Even so, the proposed change still faces substantial obstacles. New York’s request for a similar waiver was denied by the U.S. Department of Education in January. In its response, the department said it was holding New York to its responsibility to “set high expectations that apply to all students.” Janzer says his staff studied New York’s waiver and concluded that Michigan’s should include more details to humanize the situations of the affected students.

Michigan officials are currently working to incorporate public comments (there were seven, all of them supportive, Janzer said) into its request, which is expected to be submitted in the coming weeks. A decision isn’t expected from federal officials for several more months.

Whoever reads the 10-page document in Washington, D.C. will be confronted with details like these:

  • Lamphere Schools, of Madison Heights, MI, has received a significant influx of students from Iraq and Syria, and at least one elementary school’s student body is roughly 70 percent recently arrived students from these two nations. Lamphere reports that some students initially undergo temporary “silent periods,” a researched stage of second language acquisition, where children are watching and listening, but not yet speaking.
  • Warren Consolidated Schools, of Warren, MI, reports that they have many students from refugee camps, including students who are testing in 11th grade after having no formal schooling for nine or ten years. Warren Consolidated has received 2,800 students from Syria or Iraq since 2007.

Read the full document here. Most local details are on pages 7-9.

live stream

WATCH: Candidates for Detroit school board introduce themselves live

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Detroiters at IBEW 58 wait for candidates for school board candidates to address them.

The nine candidates for Detroit school board are gathering Thursday evening at IBEW 58 in Detroit to make their cases in advance of the November general election in which two seats are up for grabs.

The candidates have already introduced themselves in video statements, but this is one of their first chances to address the public in real time.

We’re covering the event — including a live stream the candidates’ opening statements, which should start around 7 p.m.

Click below or check out our Facebook page to see what they have to say.